A new study published in JAMA Oncology suggests that engaging in short periods of intense, intermittent physical activity may significantly reduce the risk of cancer. This approach could provide a potential avenue for cancer prevention, particularly for individuals who struggle to engage in regular exercise.
The study focused on short phases of intense physical exercise, lasting 1 or 2 minutes each, such as sprinting for a bus or climbing stairs. Researchers conducted a prospective cohort study involving 22,398 unathletic adults, aiming to establish a potential relationship between intense intermittent activity and cancer incidence.
Using data from wearable arm trackers, the team analysed the activity levels of participants from the UK Biobank, with an average age of 62. Over a median follow-up of 6.7 years, totalling 149,650 person-years, the researchers assessed cancer incidence in the cohort, including 13 types of physical-activity-related cancers.
Even individuals with minimal leisure activity could lower their cancer risk through just a few minutes of intense exercise.
During the study period, 2356 cancer events were recorded, of which 1084 were attributed to minimal physical activity. Notably, the majority of intense physical activity (92.3%) occurred in bursts of up to 1 minute.
The findings indicated a linear correlation between daily activity duration and outcomes. The dose-effect curve showed a steeper reduction in cancer risk associated with minimal activity, compared to overall cancer incidence.
For instance, the lowest dose of intense intermittent activity, around 3.4 minutes per day, was linked to a 17% lower risk of general cancer and a 28% risk reduction for activity-related cancers.
Yvonne Wengström, a professor of nursing at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, emphasised that even individuals with minimal leisure activity could lower their cancer risk through just a few minutes of intense exercise. She noted that a correlation between roughly 4 minutes of daily intense activity and lowered risks for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and overall mortality was previously suggested by data from the end of 2022.
The study utilised wrist acceleration meters to evaluate physical activity, proving more reliable than questionnaire-based data. The analyses were adjusted for various factors, including age, sex, BMI, education level, smoking, alcohol consumption, sleep duration, diet, medication use, and parental cancer history.
While the study showed promising results for cancer prevention, Wengström indicated that further research is needed to determine if these findings are applicable to patients already diagnosed with cancer. Different biological and hormonal factors can affect the impact of physical activity on cancer patients. Nevertheless, the study underscores the importance of physical activity in improving muscle strength, combating cancer-related fatigue, and enhancing the quality of life for cancer survivors.